Build-A-Baby

In early 2016, British scientists got the go-ahead to begin ‘gene-editing’ of human embryos for a 14 day research project. For centuries, the human genome has been the enigmatic source code of what makes us who we are. However, recent advancements in technology brought to reality the prospect of a ‘Designer Baby’. Are we investing in the perfect human at the cost of humanity?

For Genetic Engineering

Genetic modification of human embryos may sound like something from science fiction but even today, gene-editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 are under widespread use, and allow scientists to alter DNA with precision down to single letters in a DNA strand.

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The benefits and possible applications that research into the genetic engineering of human embryos could bring are overwhelming. Genome modification could lead to the eradication of genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis from future generations and provide defence against infection, Alzheimer’s or even ageing. From a utilitarian standpoint, this is hugely attractive since it gives the potential to reduce suffering for a massive number of people. Preventing the research might prevent these problems from ever being solved. This research could not only open the door to these benefits but enhance our understanding of IVF, improving success rates.

Some argue that this research could eventually lead to producing ‘designer babies’ with desired physical or intellectual traits. However, is preventing research due to these issues worth giving up what it could achieve in the long term? If you had the chance to improve life by remove a damaging hereditary condition from your child before they are born, would you not take it? That is one of the prospects that genetic modification could ultimately bring.

Genome modification could not only free our future generations from health disorders, but also cure people with existing conditions. One such example is Sohana Nikapota, a 13-year-old girl who suffers from a rare genetic disorder. Her only hope of a cure is gene therapy, where the faulty part of her DNA can be replaced with a normal one. “The potential for cures – for miracles – really is there. The question is how long it is going to take.”

Looking at the issue of human genetic modification in general, another question to ask is shouldn’t potential improvement of our health be our choice? This is the crux of the freedom principle. The research is being conducted on donated embryos in the first seven days of development (around 250 cells), and they will not be brought to term or implanted. Carrying out this research does not harm anyone, and so should its pursuit to improve quality of life be hindered?

Genetic modification as a concept is not new – humans have been influencing genetic makeup since the domestication of animals as long ago as 12000 BC. One might argue that this is just the next step in the evolution of the human race.

As a society, we should stop looking at any future advancements in natural sciences or technology from a dystopian point of view, and be more optimistic. After all, without the faith we have previously shown in technology, I wouldn’t be sat here typing this blog and you wouldn’t be sat there reading it.

Against Genetic Engineering 

Some argue that the British research is acceptable because it forbids embryo implantation into a female host, hence the hypothetical baby would never be born. However, we should consider the fact that these embryos will be destroyed after the 14 day research effort. An embryo has the potential to become a human being, provided the right conditions to develop. Can we justify the potential benefits of this research against the death sentence of these embryos?

The fear is that this approval of experimentation will pave the way to a civilisation of designer babies, where desired physical or mental traits are artificially imbued into the embryo for the paying customer. Advancements in plastic surgery were once made during WWI to improve facial disfigurements. It is now a cosmetic tool contributing to a superficial society and the genetic research can worsen this situation.

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From a military perspective, the applications are vast; the ‘super-soldier’ is one example. Generally, advancements in technology are tested in the military industry before trickling down into consumer products and the results of genetic engineering is not likely to be an exception. Hence despite our intentions of benefiting society this research could be weaponised discouraging diplomatic solutions. Nuclear technology is evidence of this – we had the power to harness energy for society yet we also chose to create the nuclear bomb. Any capacity for loss of life should be prevented.

If the potential of genetic modification was fully realised, then there is also the possibility of a eugenics driven society whereby the human population diversity is reduced and tailored, parallel to an ideal sought by Hitler and his desired Aryan race. We cannot deny that similar beliefs could also cause a lack of genetic diversity which can pose a great threat to our safety. This is similar to how GM plant species can annihilate native varieties or even be wiped out by a single disease.

Furthermore, this form of genetic modification is unknown territory and as a result there are concerns that these modifications to the embryo may have long term effects on the remaining DNA. To what extent can testing guarantee the safety of test subjects after embryo modification in the future? Moreover, the potential consequences on a human being’s psyche because of their awareness of their own experimentation is unknown. How can we justify such a risk? Imagine you were the result of genetic modification – how would you feel?

This research is a double-edged sword – undeniably, the potential benefits of gene editing could be revolutionary but the conceivable risks could be equally damaging. The sanctity of life itself is being compromised.

If you’re interested, you can read more about this topic here.

25: Lorenzo Jerald Patterson, Eric Lynn Wright, O’Shea Jackson, Andre Romelle Young

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11 thoughts on “Build-A-Baby

  1. Wow! Certainly made me question and think about the ethical dilemma we all face when tackling such an important area of research! Great article!

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  2. It’d be interesting to see the results of this research 50 years into the future, to see if a well intentioned concept like this is once again twisted for the worse. Like you said, the nuclear research created a powerful new source of energy, yet also bore fruit to the most devastating weapon in history. Let’s hope that humanity uses this for the better, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some mad scientist used the research to make his own army of Captain America babies.

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  3. Intentionally destroying embryos for the sake of research is what makes me uneasy. I guess this all hangs on what stage of development “life” starts. Implantation seems like a suspiciously convenient stage to define the beginnings of life. If it starts at fertilization, then this research is killing an awful lot of unborn people for the sake of those of us fortunate enough to have been spared experimentation when we were embryos. Is our life worth more than theirs? Why do we get to play God and decide that their life is a worthwhile sacrifice for our gain?

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  4. I was wary about the idea of genetic engineering before but having read this article, I now understand clearly the benefits as well. There were a lot of points well made that I had not thought of before. Certainly made me think and might even be changing my opinion on the subject!

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  5. Yes, there is clearly an ethical dilemma, however it would be interesting to know how many people out there would be for genetic engineering if they were in a situation where this could dramatically change the quality of life of their offspring in the case of genetic disorders.

    Having always been always been a skeptic when it comes to the topic of genetically engineering human embryos, your article has made me think more about the undeniable benefits of this research.

    Hopefully genetic engineering is carefully controlled for the future. Great article!

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  6. A fascinating read. The benefits of further research into this field seem limitless, although the writers do well to point out the moral dilemma.

    However, questioning the moral validity of this technology on the idea of the sanctity of life seems too deontist and avoids the context of when life is being removed. After all, we live in a society that accepts the legality of abortion 24 weeks in to pregnancy based on the knowledge that the foetus is unlikely to survive if born at this point; if donated embryos are not earmarked for development into human children, it would be foolish to stand firm with ideology rather than make the most out of this primitive and transient form of life.

    The article does point out perhaps more valid concerns such as the misuse of genetic modification for military and eugenic applications, although these negatives are atleast balanced by the improvements in treatment and prevention of illness and disease.

    Personally I believe that not progressing with the further development of this technology for fear of how it could be negatively harnessed by society does not place enough faith in humans. Removing the oppurtunity to potentially benefit mankind may be the more negative act than the technology’s hypothetical misuse.

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  7. Great read! This article certainly does well to point out the moral dilemmas posed by genetic engineering which our world leaders have already had to answer, and further questions they will have to answer in the near future. I suppose these can broadly be broken down into two parts. Is the research itself ethically appropriate and what are the outcomes should this research come to fruition.

    Whether or not the research is ethically appropriate depends on two fundamental moral principles: one reading the prevention or alleviation of suffering, and the regarding the value of human life. As mentioned, the use of embryonic stem cells has great potential to bring about remarkable benefits in the how we can alleviate debilitating medical conditions. Therefore, it satisfies the first principle to a great degree. However, one can argue that the harvesting of human embryonic stem cells violates the second principle in that it results in the destruction of human life (depending on one’s definition of when human life begins). The question then is which principle ought to be given priority in this conflict situation? My answer to this dilemma would depend on the end goal of such research. The article raises valid concerns regarding the outcomes of developing this technology such as the misuse of genetic modification for military and eugenic applications, even though these drawbacks are at least balanced by the improvements in treatment and prevention of illness and disease.

    In my opinion, this research is ethical provided that it is solely used for the purposes of improving the quality of life that people can live. Adapting this technology to enhance the human body for purposes other than health could prove to be destructive for society. However attempts to prevent the development of this technology will only serve to merely slow down the progression of what is to become an eventual reality.

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  8. Wow! What a fascinating article. I had no idea of the potential benefits that can be derived from embryo modification and it seems about time that research of this nature is allowed to proceed. Important scientific progress has always been made amidst screams of protest from certain sections of society. To me, this is yet another example of the constant struggle between religion and science. The historical opposition to so- called ‘gene-editing’ has come primarily from religious leaders and organisations as it is deemed to go against the principle of sanctity of life- the idea being every embryo has the potential to become a human life and thus must not be tampered with in any way.

    Even if this is true, the time surely has come for the betterment of the human race to take priority. The potential benefits from research of this nature are endless and at a certain point debating has to stop and action must be undertaken. Millions of people can benefit from embryo modification, the protests from a small segment of the population should therefore not override the general scientific consensus on such a vital issue.

    There is however clear potential for abuse here; the entire history of the human race is essentially conflict after conflict primarily caused by abuse of power. Whether it be from religious zealots claiming divine ordinance for their actions or men of pure evil seeing mass genocide as a means to an end, the words of a wise man ring true- ‘some men just want to watch the world burn.’ Therefore precautions must be taken to prevent this research from being used to create death and destruction: we all share a vested interest in the protection of our planet from war.

    In summary, whilst there are potential drawbacks from the power this research could give wrongdoers it is essential that it is undertaken and that we derive its benefits. As the great philosopher Immanuel Kant said, ‘settle for…what conduct will promote the happiness of a rational being.’

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  9. The balance of arguments for and against genetic engineering makes it difficult to take a side. However I think the financial advantages of not having to pay for treatments caused by genetic disorders, for state funded medical institutions such as the NHS, could become a factor in future government funded technological research within genetic engineering.

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  10. Many other similar breakthroughs in technology have led to abuse by some people (plastic surgery, nuclear weapons, drugs etc.), I think we’d have to accept that designer babies would either become commonplace or just an option for the rich or morally corrupt. So I think we really need to consider whether the health benefits of this research can outweigh the inevitable abuse.

    We could end up saving a million people with cystic fibrosis but allowing another million to be killed in a war involving super soldiers. We could save a child with a genetic disorder only for him to grow up in a society where he stands no chance against the superior designer babies. We need to decide if this is the type of society we want to live in.

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  11. A great article as genetic modification is certainly on the horizon due to these new technologies. It should also be considered that the technology for creating specific attributes in humans, such as in physical appearance or in mental capacities is still rather far off, as there is not yet an identified ‘gene’ for intelligence or sporting ability and these phenotypes are a result of complex gene-gene and gene-environment interactions. Although I acknowledge the fear that more privileged people could have more access to this potentiality in the future, which could cause further inequalities or that it could be used with a political or ideological motive, we should first think about what exactly we mean by designer babies, and whether we are exaggerating the potential of this technology to pick and choose attributes that are very complex.

    I think exploring this technology is a very important scientific endeavor and that research should not be prevented, even if this is looking into attributes that may heighten human capabilities rather than only prevent disease. Whether or not it may be misused is another question, as any technology can potentially be misused that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be researched into. In fact, it could greatly inform what comprises intelligence, sporting ability that may not necessarily be used in selecting babies, but in understanding fundamental neuronal processes. I would also pose to what extent ‘designer’ babies are really unethical? I don’t think diversity and genetic modification are mutually exclusive, and this should be explored further….:)

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